Pennsylvania rattlesnakes come in black and yellow color phases.
Bob Frye/Everybody Adventures
Pennsylvania rattlesnakes are doing pretty well, all things considered. Probably better than expected, in fact.
But if you want to catch one – and growing numbers do – you’ve got to play by the rules.
Otherwise, expect consequences.
Pennsylvania rattlesnakes are one of three venomous snakes in the state. They’re managed as a game species in some regards, said Chris Urban, chief if the Fish and Boat Commission’s natural diversity section. Hunting is allowed, by permit. The annual limit is one per person per year. It must be at least 42 inches long, excluding the rattle, and have 21 or more subcaudal scales.
This year, the season runs June 9 to July 31.
Over the last decade plus, the commission – together with volunteers and researchers – has sought out snakes and snake sites statewide. The northcentral region has the most by far, Urban said.
But there are more rattlesnakes in more places than some might have believed.
Each year, searchers find more den sites.
“And that’s the good thing about it, the more we look, the more we find,” Urban said. “That’s what you want for a recovering species.”
That word is out, he added.
Participation in rattlesnake hunting is likewise on the increase “beyond levels we’ve ever seen before,” Urban said.
The commission sold a record number of permits in 2016, then bettered that in 2017.
It’s ahead of last year’s pace already in 2018, too.
No one knows exactly why that is, Urban said. But he attributed it in part to social media.
People see or hear of others hunting snakes and decide to try it, he said.
Sometimes, that gets them in trouble.
Back in 215 a man in northcentral Pennsylvania was bitten by a rattlesnake. In seeking treatment, he came to the attention of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources.
Officers from the Fish and Boat Commission’s special investigations unit started looking into the case, too. That led to learning about the “Rattlesnake Renegades.”
“A follow-up by one of our officers determined that the group he was involved with was a fairly close-knit group of rattlesnake hunters from throughout the northcentral region,” said Tom Burrell, who heads up law enforcement activities in the northern half of the state for the commission.
The Renegades are to a Facebook “community” of rattlesnake hunters from around the state. The site itself legal, as are the activities of most of those posting there.
But some took things too far.
Some “community” members were apparently catching lots of snakes, but abiding by none of the commission’s rules. The commission knew that, Burrell said, because the hunters kept giving themselves away.
“They were posting photos on Facebook, they were traveling on properties they didn’t have permission to be on, and they were recording all this through their social network,” he said.
The commission spent a lot of time investigating, he added.
Finally, earlier this year, after 18 months, the commission identified a dozen suspects. it focused on the four “major players” and served three search warrants.
“Eventually we charged 10 individuals with a variety of violations, from illegally taking snakes over the limit to sale,” Burrell said.
The commission even charged two members of the group with controlled substance violations.
Things didn’t end there, though. Most of those prosecuted agreed to plea deals.
Two others had deals in place. Both were going into under ARD, or accelerated rehabilitative disposition. That allows defendants with little in the way of a previous criminal background to go on a probationary-type status. Charges are dismissed if they meet certain conditions over time.
These two defendants, though, after agreeing to that, texted the prosecuting officer and threatened him, Burrell said.
The district attorney handling the case withdrew the offer of ARD placement. He filed new charged and took the men back to court, Burrell added. There’s been no word on that outcome.
No matter what, though, rattlesnakes are here to stay. Even if people haven’t realized it.
“It’s not a rare species. It’s a species in recovery that’s doing pretty well,” Urban said.